President Obama has identified nuclear power as a key source of clean energy for the future, but many of his supporters in Vermont are headed in the opposite direction.
A week after Obama announced plans to finance construction of the first new nuclear power plant in decades, lawmakers in Vermont voted today to shutter the aging Vermont Yankee reactor.
"The plant is old and tired. It was designed to be retired in 2012, and that's what we're going to do," Peter Shumlin, president pro tem of the state senate, said Tuesday. The senate today voted 26 to 4 not to extend the plant's license.
Shumlin and other Vermont Democrats said they are pushing back against a general softening in the nation's attitudes about nuclear power, a movement that has been fueled in part by the ability of reactors to produce energy without emitting harmful greenhouse gasses.
The state senator said repeated safety scares – including a cooling tower collapse in 2007 and a tritium leak discovered earlier this year – contributed to his decision to push for the plant's closure, along with his belief that the state can find a ready supply of energy from other sources.
"It's pretty tough to convince the environmental community here that a plant leaking tritium and cobalt is providing clean energy," Shumlin said.
The owner of the plant, New Orleans-based Entergy Corp., has argued that the plant is safe and worth preserving, in part because of its ability to supply the state with more than one third of its energy supply. Safe and reliable nuclear energy has become a lynchpin of the Obama administration's approach to clean energy.
The president has had strong support from the industry. Executives at the Illinois-based utility Exelon -- a leader in the nuclear energy field -- contributed at least $227,000 to Mr. Obama's campaigns for the United States Senate and for president, according to a review by The New York Times, which noted that two top Exelon officials, Frank M. Clark, executive vice president, and John W. Rogers Jr., a director, were among Obama's largest fund-raisers.
During the 2008 race, both Obama and Republican John McCain campaigned on pledges to expand the use of nuclear power. Polling at the time, conducted by USA TODAY/Gallup, showed about half of all Americans would support more nuclear plants. Obama took a major step in that direction during a speech last week, announcing $8 billion in loan guarantees to help finance the construction of "a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in America."
The president expects the financial support to help spur construction of the first new nuclear power plant in the U.S. in 30 years, planned for Georgia.
Top officials with the nuclear industry association in Washington have supported the president's approach, and said the pushback coming from Vermont should not be overemphasized. Vermont does not have "the most hospitable climate" on the nuclear power issue, said Nuclear Energy Institute CEO Marvin Fertel, during an analyst briefing last week. "Nuclear's just easy for them to pick on."
Fertel also said recent reporting on the tritium leak at the Yankee plant has been misunderstood. Tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, can cause cancer if ingested in large amounts. It was detected in amounts more than 35 time the federal safety standard near the plant's water storage tank, according to published reports, but none has been found in drinking water supplies or in a nearby river. Company officials have told local news outlets that the leak does not pose a health and safety issue.
Shumlin said the leak was enough to persuade plenty of people in his district, which includes the Yankee plant, that Americans should be figuring out what to do with existing nuclear plants before investing in new ones.
"We are making an extraordinary mistake to bury our heads and pretend we could continue running these plants forever," he said.